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Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Muslim critic Magdi Allam converts, baptised by Benedict XVI

The Associated Press reports that Italy's most prominent Muslim, an iconoclastic writer who condemned Islamic extremism and defended Israel, converted to Catholicism Saturday in a baptism by the pope at a Vatican Easter service:
An Egyptian-born, non-practicing Muslim who is married to a Catholic, Magdi Allam infuriated some Muslims with his books and columns in the newspaper Corriere della Sera newspaper, where he is a deputy editor. He titled one book "Long Live Israel."

As a choir sang, Pope Benedict XVI poured holy water over Allam's head and said a brief prayer in Latin.

"We no longer stand alongside or in opposition to one another," Benedict said in a homily reflecting on the meaning of baptism. "Thus faith is a force for peace and reconciliation in the world: distances between people are overcome, in the Lord we have become close."

Vatican Television zoomed in on Allam, who sat in the front row of the basilica along with six other candidates for baptism. He later received his first Communion.

Allam, 55, told the newspaper Il Giornale in a December interview that his criticism of Palestinian suicide bombing provoked threats on his life in 2003, prompting the Italian government to provide him with a sizable security detail.

Local Muslim organizations responded thus to the news:
The Union of Islamic Communities in Italy — which Allam has frequently criticized as having links to Hamas — said the baptism was his own decision.

"He is an adult, free to make his personal choice," the Apcom news agency quoted the group's spokesman, Issedin El Zir, as saying.

Yahya Pallavicini, vice president of Coreis, the Islamic religious community in Italy, said he respected Allam's choice but said he was "perplexed" by the symbolic and high-profile way in which he chose to convert.

"If Allam truly was compelled by a strong spiritual inspiration, perhaps it would have been better to do it delicately, maybe with a priest from Viterbo where he lives," the ANSA news agency quoted Pallavicini as saying.

There seems to be some disjuncture between the emphasis on Allam as "Italy's leading Muslim writer" and the following description of the convert as: "An Egyptian-born, non-practicing Muslim who is married to a Catholic."

According to another article, Allam himself "says he has never been a practicing Muslim." And in his own conversion story, he refers to himself as having "occasionally practiced [Islam] at a cultural level." Hardly what I would call "Italy's most prominent MUSLIM".

Were the inverse true: -- were a non-practicing Catholic married to a Muslim to embrace Islam -- would it be proper to describe him as "a prominent Catholic"?

This leads me to wonder if the press is deliberately playing up this aspect of the story, so as to foster Islamic-Christian tensions -- along the same lines as their shoddy reporting of Benedict's Regensburg address (ignoring practically everything else in his address, save that which they saw as newsworthy and potentially inflammatory).

It is possible to perceive Benedict's agreement to baptize Allam as signifying his emphasis on religious freedom (particularly for Christians residing in nations with an Islamic majority). Nonetheless I think it would be improper for Christians to treat this conversion in triumphalistic fashion, as seems to be the case on some blogs.


  • Muslim Baptized by Pope Sought Dialogue, by Frances D'Emilio. Associated Press March 24, 2008:
    The Egyptian-born commentator who renounced Islam and converted to Roman Catholicism with a baptism by Pope Benedict XVI has built his career crusading against what he calls the "inherent" violence in Islam and championing Israel's existence. . . .

    Allam has credited the pope, who himself has been criticized by some Muslims, as being instrumental in his decision to become a Catholic at age 55 and after spending his adult life in predominantly Catholic Italy.

    A frequent commentator on Islamic issues and terrorism on Italian TV, Allam says he is "passionate" about coexistence in the West of "national identity and democracy, immigration and integration, Islam and terrorism" . . .

    The conversion freed him "from the shadows of a preaching where hate and intolerance toward he who is different, toward he who is condemned as an 'enemy,'" he said.

    In an interview on Italian private TV Canale 5 Monday evening, Allam said he felt "stronger" and "great joy" because of his conversion.

    He dismissed the suggestion that Benedict, in baptizing him, might put at risk the lives of Christian minorities in Islamic nations.

    Benedict "wanted to give a signal to the church throughout the world that whoever" wants to join will be accepted, Allam said.

  • A Muslim critic turns Catholic, by Jeff Israeliy. Time March 24, 2008:
    After studying sociology at Rome's La Sapienza University, Allam began writing for the Italian daily La Repubblica, covering the first Gulf War and chronicling everyday life of the country's growing Muslim population. Initially, he wrote favorably about multiculturalism, and warned about the risks of racism against Muslims in this heavily Catholic nation. But after 9/11, now writing for another major newspaper, Corriere della Sera, he became an increasingly harsh critic of Islam, both inside and outside of Italy. He warned against the "Islamization" of Europe, and urged opposition to the building of new mosques in Italy. In his provocatively titled 2007 book Viva Israel: From the ideology of death to the civilization of life, my story, he described his transformation from hating Zionists as a youth to realizing "that hatred easily comes to include all Jews, then all Christians, then all liberal and secular Muslims, and at the end all Muslims who do not want to submit to Islamic radicals' will."
  • Magdi Allam Recounts His Path to Conversion Zenit News Service. March 23, 2008:
    On my first Easter as a Christian I not only discovered Jesus, I discovered for the first time the face of the true and only God, who is the God of faith and reason. My conversion to Catholicism is the touching down of a gradual and profound interior meditation from which I could not pull myself away, given that for five years I have been confined to a life under guard, with permanent surveillance at home and a police escort for my every movement, because of death threats and death sentences from Islamic extremists and terrorists, both those in and outside of Italy.

    I had to ask myself about the attitude of those who publicly declared fatwas, Islamic juridical verdicts, against me -- I who was a Muslim -- as an “enemy of Islam,” “hypocrite because he is a Coptic Christian who pretends to be a Muslim to do damage to Islam,” “liar and vilifier of Islam,” legitimating my death sentence in this way. I asked myself how it was possible that those who, like me, sincerely and boldly called for a “moderate Islam,” assuming the responsibility of exposing themselves in the first person in denouncing Islamic extremism and terrorism, ended up being sentenced to death in the name of Islam on the basis of the Quran. I was forced to see that, beyond the contingency of the phenomenon of Islamic extremism and terrorism that has appeared on a global level, the root of evil is inherent in an Islam that is physiologically violent and historically conflictive.

    At the same time providence brought me to meet practicing Catholics of good will who, in virtue of their witness and friendship, gradually became a point of reference in regard to the certainty of truth and the solidity of values. . . .

    But undoubtedly the most extraordinary and important encounter in my decision to convert was that with Pope Benedict XVI, whom I admired and defended as a Muslim for his mastery in setting down the indissoluble link between faith and reason as a basis for authentic religion and human civilization, and to whom I fully adhere as a Christian to inspire me with new light in the fulfillment of the mission God has reserved for me.

    Christianity will certainly procure for me yet another, and much more grave, death sentence for apostasy. You are perfectly right. I know what I am headed for but I face my destiny with my head held high, standing upright and with the interior solidity of one who has the certainty of his faith. And I will be more so after the courageous and historical gesture of the Pope, who, as soon has he knew of my desire, immediately agreed to personally impart the Christian sacraments of initiation to me. His Holiness has sent an explicit and revolutionary message to a Church that until now has been too prudent in the conversion of Muslims, abstaining from proselytizing in majority Muslim countries and keeping quiet about the reality of converts in Christian countries. Out of fear. The fear of not being able to protect converts in the face of their being condemned to death for apostasy and fear of reprisals against Christians living in Islamic countries. Well, today Benedict XVI, with his witness, tells us that we must overcome fear and not be afraid to affirm the truth of Jesus even with Muslims.

  • Not suprisingly, is playing up Allam's "Muslim" background as well, in addition to his denunciations of Islam as "intrinsically violent".

  • Muslims question Vatican baptism of Islamic critic, by Tom Heneghan. Reuters. March 24, 2008:
    [Aref Ali Nayed, a participant in the Muslim-Catholic dialogue] said the Vatican should distance itself from a searing attack on Islam that Allam published on Sunday in the Milan daily Corriere della Sera, where he is deputy director.

    Commentators in Algeria and Morocco echoed Nayed's view, saying Allam's conversion was a personal affair but his attacks on Islam and his headline-grabbing baptism by the pope strained relations between Muslims and the Catholic Church.

    "The whole spectacle... provokes genuine questions about the motives, intentions and plans of some of the pope's advisers on Islam," Nayed, who is director of the Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Centre in Amman, said in a statement.

    "Nevertheless, we will not let this unfortunate episode distract us from our work on pursuing 'A Common Word' for the sake of humanity and world peace. Our basis for dialogue is not a tit-for-tat logic of reciprocity."

Update 3/24/08

Some reactions from the Catholic blogging world ...

  • An Individual Act of Conscience or a Global Phenomenon?, by Sherry Weddell, who expresses her reservations about the publicity being heaped upon Allam (Intentional Disciples March 24, 2008):
    [Allam's baptism] could have been done lovingly and well a thousand different ways – none of which required that his face and story blanket the globe within hours of his reception. Being baptized did not require that he become the poster-boy for Muslims considering Christianity and there were a number of obvious reasons why he isn’t a great candidate for poster boydom and may actually be counter-productive.

    Apart from the geo-religious-political implications, all this publicity could actually hamper his spiritual growth and that of his family. Being a trophy convert is often not a good thing for one’s actual process of conversion. . . .

    Since we aren't actively persecuted, it is easy for us to call for a full frontal assault ( Charge!) and "religious freedom now!" and to talk blithely about the blood of the martyrs being the seed of the Church. Cause the chances of it being our blood or that of our children is very, very small. But as I have said before, "charge!" and spineless cowardice are not the only two options available to us.

    Meanwhile, someone really sharp, spiritually and theological mature, and prayerful needs to stay close to Allam and guide him through this tumultuous transition. It's hard enough to become a Catholic at age 56 from a non-Christian background. Doing it in the middle of a media and geo-political circus (Imagine if Princess Diana had become Catholic as was rumored before her death!) is full of potential pitfalls.

    (Abu Daoud @ Islam & Christianity, responds on The Baptism of Magdi Allam: Wisdom or Folly?:
    Was it the wisest and most prudent path for Benedict to baptize this particular Muslim on Easter at St. Petersburg?

    I think there that Sherry would answer NO. But my answer is Yes. So let me address this specific topic instead of trading in hypotheticals, which is what we have been doing until now. . . .

  • And DarwinCatholic, on True Religious Tolerance and Dialog:
    I find myself wondering if Benedict's aim in all this is to make a statement about the nature of true religious toleration and dialog. . . .

    Benedict is no political and cultural fire-breether, but he is a thoughtful and holy man who is in no sense afraid of difficult and unpopular truths. I wonder if the pope, who according to Allam immediately agreed to personally receive him into the Church when Allam made the request, means with this action to make a statement that he will bring to the table when he meets with scholard from the A Common Word initiative in November: Toleration means not merely ignoring and minimizing points of difference, but respecting the conscience of others even in the face of grave and important points of difference.

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Tuesday, January 08, 2008

George Weigel's "Faith, Reason & The War against Jihadism" (Part 1)

Weigel begins Faith, Reason and the War Against Jihadism with the basic observation that the overwhelming majority of humanity receives the narrative for life from religious convictions, and for whom religion constitutes a (or, rather, the) dynamic force. To put it another way (borrowing a familiar phrase from American conservatism:) "ideas have consequences." Failure to understand this, warns Weigel, is to commit a kind of "conceptual self-sabotage."

Criticizing the notion of "the inevitable progress of history" which holds many in its sway ("a hypothetical, not a given"), Weigel intends this book as a wake-up call, a reminder that the very future of the West rests not upon material or technological wealth but "whether our spiritual aspirations are noble or base." He sets out "to identify what we should have learned, since September 11, 2001: about our enemy, about us -- and about what must be done to see us through to a future safe for freedom." Writign for a popular audience, he offers 15 brief lessons categorized in three sections: 'Understanding the Enemy', 'Rethinking Realism' and 'Deserving Victory.'

I'm going to divide my post into two parts -- I'll begin by presenting Weigel's diagnosis of the problem (understanding of "the Enemy"), and offering my impressions; in a later post I plan to review the 2nd and 3rd parts (essentially Weigel's prescription in the form of recommmendations for foreign policy). Read More

"Understanding the Enemy"

Weigel challenges the facile equasion of Christianity, Judaism and Islam as "people of the Book" or "the three Abrahamic faiths." To do so, he contends, obscures the very different characterization and roles assigned to Moses and Jesus in Islamic theology, not to mention the unique nature of Muslim's reverence for the Qur'an.

The focal point of this differentiation is Islamic theological supersessionism: Islam's conviction of itself as the final revelation and a necessary corrective to Judaism and Christianity in such a way that, while "no orthodox Christian holds that God's self-revelation in Christ negates God's self-revelation in the history of the People of Israel," Islam, by contrast, "trumps . . . any prior revelatory value that might be found in the Hebrew bible or the New Testament." [p. 20-21].

Consequentially, Islam has built into its theology a "dynamic of conflict" with Judaism and Christianity. However, while the history of Islamic-Christian relations has been one of "almost continuous conflict", Weigel does not think this inevitable ("it should not be thought that Islamic supersessionism necessarily requires violent conflict"). [p. 21]

Another common mistake, according to Weigel, is believing Islam's understanding of the Qur'an as analogous to our understanding of the Christian scriptures:

The Christian theological understanding of biblical "inspiration" -- which would not be foreign to Judaism -- provides for the possibility of interpretation of the sacred texts [and] the development of doctrine . . . the Qur'an by contrast is understood to be dictated, word for word and syllable for syllable, so there is no question of "exegesis" . . . nor is there any possibility of a postscriptural development of doctrine. The priority on Islam is on jurisprudence, the debate of experts in Islamic law on the applicability of texts to circumstances." [p. 26]
Weigel cites as an example the question of women veiling themselves -- the passages in the Qur'an and the Christian scriptures (I Corinthians 11:3-26) are similar in content, but understood in radically different fashions. Paul's advice (that women be decently dressed) was interpreted contextually and adapted to the times. By contrast, the directive to veil one's self in the Qur'an comes literally "from God" and cannot be abrogated. There is no dispute -- only the question of to what manner this order is to be carried out (precise measurements and what garments to be used).

Another important distinction between Muslims and Christians is the Islamic conception of God, and its consequences for each tradition's "theological anthropology." Weigel turns to the French historian Alain Bensacon ("What Kind of Religion is Islam" Commentary May 2004), who observes that:

The one God of the Qur'an, the God who demands submission, is a distant God; to call him "Father" would be an anthropomorphic sacrilege. The Muslim God is utterly impassive; to ascribe loving feeling to Him would be suspect. [pp. 27-28]

In Christian theology we perceive an analogy between God and humanity: men and women are bound to God by speech and argument; in Genesis, Adam names the animals, thereby participating in the divine work of the Creator. To act rationally is to reflect the Father (Here one is reminded of Benedict's citation of Manuel II in his Regensburg Address: "Not to act reasonably, not to act with logos, is contrary to the nature of God"). According to Weigel, such a conception is not to be found in the world of Islam, whose anthropology is governed instead by "submission to the majesy of God, who neither begets nor is begotten."

What are the consequences of this differentation in conceptions?

"If God is not "Father," it is difficult to imagine the human person as been made "in the image of God." And that, in turn, puts great strain on any idea of intimacy between faith and reason [in the human-divine relationship]." [p. 30]
Christianity and Islam also differ greatly in their understanding of the just society, the latter characterized by the fusion of temporal and spiritual authority. According to Bernard Lewis, "The Islamic state [is] the only truly legitimate power on earth and the Islamic community the sole repository of truth" -- the world thus divided between "The House of Islam" (Dar al-Islam) and "The House of War" (Dar al-harb -- composed of those who have not yet submitted to Islam and his Prophet). Suffice to say this presents a great impediment in creating the cultural conditions for social pluralism between ethnic or religious groups. [p. 31] Considering this impoverishment, Weigel asks:
. . . Christianity's convictions about the rationality built into the world by the world's creator were one important source of "modernity," if by that term we mean the scientific method, historical-critical study, [and] goverment by the arts of persuasion, . . . are there in Islam's theological self-understanding, themes analogous to Christianity's theologically driven convictions about the rationality of the world, themes that could, over time, make Islam's encounter with modernity more fruitful for both Islam and the modern world? [p. 34]
For Weigel, "whether Islam can evolve into a religion capable of providing religious warrants for genuine pluralism" is one of the great questions of our age.

Whom, or what, are we fighting?

Weigel moves on to a proper identification of the enemy with which we are engaged: jihadism - best distinguished from other forms of Islamism by its messianic political aspirations, demanding nothing less than a global Islamic state. Weigel quotes Fr. Neuhaus:

"Jihadism is the religiously inspired ideology [which teaches] that it is the moral obligation of all Muslims to employ whatever means necessary to compel the world's submission to Islam."

To understand jihadism and what motivates these terrorists, one must grasp its intellectual history. Weigel locates this in the writings of several prominent Muslim figures:

  • Taqi ad-Din Ahmad ibn Taymiyyah (1263-1328) - who taught that political power was essential for Islam's survival and the establishment of peace and justice is predicated on Islam's victory worldwide; also, for broadening the targets of jihad to include -- through takfir or excommunication -- fellow Muslims deemed to be heretical and apostate opponents of jihad. According to Taymiyyah: "any group of people that rebels against any single prescript of the clear and reliably transmitted prescripts of Islam has to be fought… even if members of this group publicly make a formal confession of the Islamic faith" (See: "The Preacher and the Jihadi", by Steven Brooke. Current Trends in Islamist Ideology Vol. 3

  • Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab (1703/4-1792) - from whom the term Wahhabism is derived, which influenced the Taliban in Afghanistan and has become the formal religion of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (and via Saudi funding, propagated in madrassas throughout the world).

    Wahab emphasized the radical unicity (oneness) and lordship of God, the absolute lawgiver, and in relation to whom there is only submission:

    True submission, according to Wahhab, requires both a profound disdain for Islamic mysticism and the destruction of any human artifacts that are thought to embody or express divine attributes.
    See also: Stephen Schwartz on Islam and Wahhabism Q&A with Kathryn Jean Lopez. National Review November 2002).

  • Hasan al Banna (1906-1949), Egyptian founder of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, operating under the slogan “God is our purpose, the Prophet our leader, the Qur’an our constitution. Jihad our way and dying for God’s cause our supreme objective.” According to Weigel, Hassan condemned the "mental colonization" of Islam under colonial rule and urged a wholesale Islamic social reformation, in which the educational, social, economic, religious and charitable activities of the Muslim Brotherhood would be wedded to the sword of Jihad, cleansing the owrld of infidels and unbelievers.

  • Sayyid Qutb (1903-1966), a leading intellectual in the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. Qutb believed that "the index of whether a state was truly Muslim was the degree to which sharia law prevailed," and stressed that those Muslims who failed to live an authentic Muslim life constituted a threat to Islam alongside Jews, Christians and unbelievers.

    Sayiid Qutb's writings were promoted by his brother Mohammad, a professor of Islamic studies in Saudi Arabia. One of his students, Ayman Zawahiri, would become a mentor to Osama bin Laden and a leading figure in Al Qaeda. (For more on Qutbe, see Paul Berman's "The Philosopher of Islamic Terror" New York Times Magazine, March 23, 2003.)

What is important, says Weigel, is to read history and politics "through the prism of jihadist theological convictions." The "generally feckless" response by the United States to attacks on U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998 and the bombing of the U.S.S. Cole in 2000 spurred Bin Laden to new heights of hostility. According to Reza Aslan:

The attacks of 9/11, for example, were by Bin Laden's own admission specifically designed to goad the United States into exaggerated retaliation against the Islamic world so as to galvanize other Muslims to join the jihadist cause. The idea was to mobilize the Muslim world to choose sides in an internal battle over the future of Islam by framing the inevitable U.S. response to 9/11 as a war not against terrorism but against Islam itself.

Economic resentment, the United States' relationship with Israel, and the presence of U.S. troops abroad are peripheral to jihadist ambitions: namely, the overthrow of the West and the consequent subjugation of all humanity under Islam:

As Pope Benedict pointed out in [the Regensburg Address], the key theological move that underwrites today's jihadist ideology (and practice) is the identification by jihadists of God as Absolute Will. If that is what jihadists believe God to be (irrespective of the degree of warrant that concept can find in classical Islam, which is disputed), then jihadists are, within their own frame of reference, justified in belieivng that God can command anything -- even the irrational. And so, in extension of the thought of Sayyid Qutb, contemporary jihadists believe that murder of innocents is not only morally acceptable, but morally required, if such murders advance the cause of Islam. Thus the origins of one of today's most lethal weapons: the so-called "suicide bomber" . . . [p. 48]

The line of Islamic thought from Tammiya and Wahhab that would later influence Hasan al-Banna and Sayyid Qutbe was one in which several struggles were being played out: Islam vs. modernity; jihadists vs. other Islamic reformers,; Islam versus the rest. That line of thought came to one terminus when Ayman al-Zawahiri and Osama bin Laden - an Egyptian and a Saudi . . . joined focus to form al-Qaeda. [p. 50]

The consequence of this union was global jihad. Far from crazy, Islamic jihadists from the perspective of their own defective theology make "a terrible kind of sense."

Dialogue and Islamic Renewal

In Chapter 6, Weigel turns his attention to Islamic-Christian dialogue -- he mentions Benedict's 2006 Regensburg Address, and the first "Open Letter" of 38 prominent Islamic leaders in response. The imperative of future dialogues, says Weigel, should be to "address Islam's ability assimilate, in a critical way, the achievements of the Enlightennment - a question which Christianity has been wrestling with for centuries." The skepticism and relativism that are characteristic of one aspect of Enlightenment thought need not deter Muslims from engaging that which is positive:

... [exploring] the possibility of an Islamic case for religious tolerance, social pluralism and civil society -- even as Islam's interlocutor's (among Christians, Jews and others, including nonbelievers) open themselves to the possibility that the Islamic critique of certain aspects of modern culture is not without merit. [pp. 63-64]

While some have recommended an "Islamic Luther" as a panacea for Muslim ills, Weigel envisions someone along the lines of Leo XIII: "... toward the possibility of a religious leader who reaches back into the deeper philosophical resources of his tradition in order to broker a critical agreement with Enlightenment political thought, and to shape his tradition's encounter with the economic and political institutions of modernity." As Leo's retrieval of authentic Thomistic philosophy led to a development of social doctrine in the Catholic Church and eventually to Vatican II's historic Declaration on Religious Freedom and the disentanglement of sacerdotium from regnum, Weigel hopes that Muslims could accomplish a similar

process of retrieval and development, as distinct from rupture and revolution . . . such an approach, emphasizing the capacity of reason to get at the truth of things, also holds out the possibility of interreligious dialogue.
Weigel does caution that non-Muslims can play no significant role in this process; that it must be resolved internally, "in term of Islamic premises."

At the same time, non-Muslims can shape the contours of this struggle -- first, by refraining from dialoguing Muslim religious leaders who do not first publicly denounce jihadism and terrorism (anti-semites and Holocaust deniers need not apply); secondly, by working with those who are "reviving the tradition of reason with Islam" -- specifically, defending reason against the dual threat of "jihadists and postmodernists who deny the human capacity to know the truth of anything with certainty." Weigel envisions building a cross-cultural grammer of natural law, the recognition of moral truths built into the world and human nature which can be grasped by reflection. In such a way we could have "the first building blocks of a philosophical foundation on which to construct together free and just societies that respect religious conviction."

Weigel closes out the first part of his book with a reminder to his readers that this present war is likely to span "at least 2-3 generations" -- birth rates in Islamic countries are actually diminishing, creating a brief "window of opportunity" for jihadists to accomplish their goals. Nonetheless, while still a minority among Muslims, jihadists "can count on a substantial periphery of sympathizers, more than sufficient to sustain long campaigns of terrorism" (Weigel, citing Walter Laqueur p. 72.)

In his interview with Hugh Hewitt, Weigel expresses his frustration with the United States for losing site of the broader context of this war -- as he put it, this war is being fought on multiple fronts -- in Afghanistan, Somalia, Gaza, Pakistan, North Africa/Maghreb, Sudan and Southeast Asia. There are many facets to the conflict: intelligence, financial-flows, economics, energy, and homeland security.

Al-Qaeda attacks on the United States and on American diplomatic assets were, for example, planned in the Phillipines and other parts of Southeast Asia. Places unknown to the vast majority of Americans are now among the most evil places on earth . . . what happens in locales previously unknown save in the most recondite geography bees -- North Waziristan -- has direct effects on our armed forces in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere. What is being plotted in such places could have devastating effects on the homeland.
It's high time that we recognize this threat, that we take it seriously, and that our public leaders, as well as American voters, -- as Weigel put it -- "are not afraid to use the 'J' word." It is not "Islamophobic" to note the historical connection between conquest and Muslim expansion, or between contemporary jihadism and terrorism.

* * *

Impressions of Part I: "Understanding the Enemy"

I admit that when I first heard about Weigel's book I was curious whether he would take an approach akin to Robert Spencer ( His website serves a useful purpose in its daily reports on the activities of jihadists, but goes too far in its fiery rhetoric, tarring Muslims as a whole with sweeping denunciations ("to take the violence out of Islam would require it to jettison two things: the Quran as the word of Allah and Muhammad as Allah's prophet . . . to pacify Islam would require its transformation into something that it is not"). A reader immersing himself soley in Spencer's work might arrive at the conclusion that Islam was nothing more than a violent political ideology and the only authentic Muslim, true to the dictates of his religion, is the radical jihadist engaged in violent struggle against the West. Consider Jihadwatch's response to the question: "If Islam is violent, why are so many Muslims peaceful?":

This question is a bit like asking, "If Christianity teaches humility, tolerance, and forgiveness, why are so many Christians arrogant, intolerant, and vindictive?" The answer in both cases is obvious: in any religion or ideology there will be many who profess, but do not practice, its tenets. Just as it is often easier for a Christian to hit back, play holier-than-thou, or disdain others, so it is often easier for a Muslim to stay at home rather than embark on jihad. Hypocrites are everywhere.

Furthermore, there are also people who do not really understand their own faith and so act outside of its prescribed boundaries. In Islam, there are likely many Muslims who do not really understand their religion

As Dinesh Disouza remarked, such critics -- when following their charge to their ultimate conclusions -- let Bin Laden define Islam. Indeed, the only acceptable Muslim in this perspective would be one who has renounced his faith altogether.

By contrast, Weigel takes care to distinguish jihadism or Islamism from Islam as a religious tradition. For example, it is notable that in his numerous references to Pope Benedict's Regensburg Address, he understands it as a critique of jihadism, as opposed to general Islam (Muslim readers should take note of this).

With over a billion Muslims in the world today, an estimated 5-7 million in the U.S. alone and 10-20,000 serving in our own armed forces, I believe it is important not to adopt the erroneous position of "guilty until proven innocent," regarding everybody in a hijab or carrying a Qur'an as a suspected terrorist. So it comes as a relief to see Weigel taking a less hyperbolic approach to this issue as those who have, post 9/11, made something of a career in racheting up the polemics against Islam.

Fr. Samir Khalil put it best:

The truth is that Islamic terrorism is caused by Islamism that is by a certain reading of the Koran and Sunnah, which has spread throughout the most famous Islamic schools and universities such as Cairo's Al-Azhar. Islamic terrorism is caused by Salafism, that is a blind adherence to the tradition of the ancients, of those who went before us (salaf), a literal and immoveable reading, without life, without soul. This with regards to the Sunni world.

In the Shiite world, the Khomeini theory of the "wilâyat al-faqîh" – according to which the ideal state is that which is governed by the most gifted faqîh, a shariah specialist – opened the door to the all forms of extremism, in the name of shariah, by deciding the daily life of the people and of society.

It is important not to confuse Islam with Islamism, but it is just as important to urge Muslims to reject Islamism as an alteration of authentic Islam and to counter this violent and invasive tendency.

While I am in full agreement with the essential thrust of Weigel's book (awaking the world to the reality of the Islamist threat), I do have some concerns about his treatment of Islam:

"The Muslim God"

In conveying the "Islamic conception of God," Weigel appears largely reliant on the Commentary article by French historian Alain Bensacon. I have to wonder: how many Muslims would characterize their own perception and experience of God in such cold, stark terminology: "distant . . . utterly impassive . . . demanding submission"? -- It may be true that Islam is chiefly characterized by its insistence on God as Absolute, but this is not to say that the Islamic tradition is wholly devoid of love. See, for instance, God and Love, by Dr. Ahmad Shafaat, who disputes the charge; or for more in-depth reading, Perspectives on the Concept of Love in Islam, by Mahnaz Heydarpoor. One would also have to take into account sufism, the mystical dimension of Islam, whose adherents strive to empty themselves of the false self and thereby become a "receptacle for God's love."

Dar al Islam vs. Dar al Harb -- applicable or outdated?

In terms of the separation of the world into the "House of Islam" Dar al-Islam and the "House of War" Dar al-harb, Weigel neglects to point out that this distinction tends to vary and is generally regarded as a matter of ijtihad (independent judgment) by Muslim scholars, given as there is no mention of this concept in the Qur’an or the Sunnah.

Jihadists are quick to identify the non-Muslim world as dar al-Harb (in a state of belligerency against Islam, consequuently making militant jihad incumbent on Muslims). However, other Muslims opt for a more expansive understanding, such as the following from Sheikh `Atiya Saqr, former head of Al-Azhar Fatwa Committee:

Muslim scholars maintain that the labeling of a country or place as being an Islamic country or a non-Islamic one Dar al-Harb revolves around the question of religious security. This means that if a Muslim practices Islam freely in his place of abode despite that the place happens to be secular or un-Islamic, then he will be considered as living in a Dar Islam, meaning that he is not obliged to immigrate from that place.
Curiously, as Dr Zafarul-Islam Khan writes, Muslims may even find themselves more free in non-Muslim countries:
It is evident today that in many ‘Muslim’ countries Muslims’ lives, honour and right to follow Islam are not safe while there are ‘non-Muslim’ countries, like our own country, where Muslims’ lives and properties are safe legally. Moreover, we enjoy legal rights to follow our religion and preach it. Therefore, it is a mistake to apply the old concept of dar al-Islam and dar al-harb on the contemporary world.
("Are the terms of Dar al-Islam and Dar al-Harb still applicable?" Milli Gazette July 15, 2000).

The Muslim philosopher Tariq Ramadan discusses these concepts in his book Western Muslims and the Future of Islam, rejecting the binary confinement of an "us vs. them" mentality. "We are living in an age of diversity, blending and extremly deep complexity that cannot be understood or evaluated through a binary prism, which is as much simplistic as reductionist. . . . It is becoming necessary today to go back to the Qu'ran and the Sunna and, in lgiht of our environment, to deepend our analysis in order to develop a new vision appropriate to our new context in order to formulate suitable legal opinions." Ramadan proposes instead the world of testimony: "in the sense of undertaking an essential duty and demanding responsibility -- to contribute wherever they can to promoting goodness and justice in and through human fraternity."

Muslim vs. Christian Approaches to Scripture

Also, one can only go so far with emphasizing the differences in Christian and Islamic approaches to their scriptures or the assertion that, because Muslims believe in the divine authorship of the Qur'an, the possibilities for exegesis and dialogue with others is limited. For example, shortly after the publication of a second letter by 138 Muslim scholars, Cardinal Tauran asserted that "Muslims do not accept the possibility of discussing the Qur'an, because it is written, they say, as dictated by God" -- this was construed as an attempt to silence the dialogue, and promptly and directly challenged by Muslim scholar Aref Ali Nayed in a lengthy interview with Catholic News Service's Cindy Wooden:

The Qur’an is eternal (qadim) in essence, origin, and as essential divine discourse competence (kalamullah as kalam nafsi). It is, however, also historical in its unfolding, as revelatory performance (kalamullah as kalam lafzi), and was revealed to the Prophet (peace be upon him) in intimate engagement with the historical and living circumstances and events of the Muslim community (tanzil and tanjim).

Muslim scholars have always based their interpretations and exegeses of the Qur’an on the bases of several historical and philological sciences, including the science of the ‘circumstances of revelation’ (asbabulnuzul), the science of the history of the Qur’an (tarikhulqur'an), and the sciences that carefully study the linguistic modes familiar to the Arabs around the time of revelation (ulumulugha). Muslim scholars developed a comprehensive apparatus of historical-critical-linguistic methodologies for understanding the Qur’an (ulumulqur’an).

Muslim scholars were always aware of the fact that the activities of interpretation, understanding, and exegesis (of God’s eternal discourse) are forms of human strenuous striving (ijtihad) that must be dutifully renewed in every believing generation. Solemn belief in the eternity and divine authorship of the Qur’an never prevented Muslim scholars from dealing with it historically and linguistically. On the contrary, belief in the revelatory truth of the Qur’an was the very motivation for spending life-times in close scholarly study of God’s discourse.

So belief in the divine source of the Qur'an may not necessarily be an impediment to Muslim dialogue.

* * *

All this is not to deny the very real theological differences between Islam and Christianity or the challenges Islam must face in its reconciliation with the Enlightenment -- first and foremost, as Weigel asserts, is coming to terms with pluralism and articulating an Islamic case for religious freedom -- together (I would add) with a prohibition of the death sentence for Muslims who commit apostasy in Islam. (Arguing on the basis of the Qur'an and within Muslim tradition, Dr. Jamal A. Badawi makes a case for such in Is Apostasy a Capital Crime in Islam? Apr. 26, 2006).

Finally, when Weigel talks about revival of Islam in terms of "retrieval and development" of Islamic tradition as opposed to "reform and revolution", I'd be curious to what extent he has explored traditional Islamic reponses to jihadism? -- I had discussed this aspect of the debate in a previous post, reviewing the book in which traditional Muslim authors offer a critique of jihadism from within their tradition. Weigel would likely be interested in the contributions from David Dadake ("The Myth of a Militant Islam") and Reza Shah-Kazemi Recollecting the Spirit of Jihad.

Also of interest is Shaykh Mohammad Afifi al-Akiti's "Defending the Transgressed by Censuring the Reckless against the Killing of Civilians" - which disputes the fatwa of a jihadist organization defending suicide-bombings and the proposition that "attacks such as the September 11th Hijackings is a viable option in Jihad" -- the latter gives one a sense of how jihadism might be condemned from the perspective of Islamic military ethics.

In many ways, Bin Laden's struggle against the West is also a struggle for the heart of Islam itself. As James Turner Johnson noted ("Jihad and Just War" (First Things June-July 2002):

“Bin Laden’s jihad not only pits Islam against America, the West as a whole and ultimately the rest of the non-Islamic world; it also seeks to overthrow the contemporary Muslim states and mainstream views of Islamic tradition among the great majority of contemporary Muslims."
It would be helpful, then, to more closely monitor and encourage traditional Muslim responses to the jihadism / Islamicism. (My sense is that Weigel was constrained by his intent on writing a popular, not particularly academic, work).

* * *

While expressing qualified praise for the initial "Open Letter to Pope Benedict XVI" from 38 Muslim scholars and leaders, he went on to convey his disapproval of another call for theological dialogue by the same parties, entitled "A Common Word Between Us & You". In his column "A Disappointing Call for Dialogue" ("The Catholic Difference", November 15, 2007), Weigel questioned:

Do these 138 Muslims agree or disagree that religious freedom and the distinction between religious and political authority are the issues at the heart of today's tensions between Islam and the West -- indeed, Islam and the rest? Would it not be more useful to concentrate on these urgent issues of practical reason (which bear on the organization of 21st century societies) than to frame the dialogue in terms of a generic exploration of the two Great Commandments (which risks leading to an exchange of banalities)? Why not get down to cases?

It is of the utmost importance for the human future that a genuine interreligious dialogue unfold between Islam and Christianity (and Judaism, which is largely ignored in "A Common Word"). Genuine dialogue requires a precise focus, and a commitment by the dialogue partners to condemn by name those members of their communities who murder in the name of God. It is unfortunate that "A Common Word" took us no closer to cementing either of these building blocks of genuine dialogue into place.

While I am sympathetic to Weigel's concerns, I am a little more hopeful in the letter's potential to help Muslims and Christians find common ground and engage each other. Since it's publication, the 138 signatories has grown to 216. The letter has moreover received a number of positive responses within the ecclesial Catholic hierarchy, (including, coincidentally, Cardinal Pell, to whom Weigel dedicates this book).

In December, Pope Benedict XVI responded to the letter by inviting some Muslim delegates to meet with the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue for further discussion (Video Coverage). And inasmuch as Benedict has made reciprocity and religious freedom integral to the Christian-Islamic dialogue, I cannot see the dialogue proceeding without a discussion of these issues.

We will see what the future holds and if Muslims can rise to the challenge Weigel (and Benedict) have placed before them.

Next "Rethinking Realism" and "Deserving Victory" - Weigel's policy prescriptions for the United States and the West.

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Friday, December 14, 2007

USCCB Doctrinal Commitee Educates Peter C. Phan on the Gospel

A welcome update to the investigation of Fr. Peter C. Phan, which we reported on in September (Against The Grain ). This week, the The U.S. Bishops’ Doctrine Committee issued clarifications concerning several aspects of Father Peter C. Phan’s book, Being Religious Interreligiously: Asian Perspectives on Interfaith Dialogue:
Father Phan’s book uses “certain terms in an equivocal manner” that “opens the text up to significant ambiguity,” the Committee said. It added that “a fair reading of the book could leave readers in considerable confusion as to the proper understanding of the uniqueness of Christ.”

The Committee, which represents the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) on doctrinal matters, outlined its concerns in a statement, “Clarifications Required by the Book Being Religious Interreligiously: Asian Perspectives on Interfaith Dialogue.” [.pdf format] The Committee made the statement public December 10.

The Doctrinal Committee points out that Father Phan actually did not respond to their invitation to provide needed clarifications to his book, thus necessitating the committee to act on their own, "since, at the very least, the use in the book of certain terms in an equivocal manner opens the text up to significant ambiguity and since a fair reading of the book could leave readers in considerable confusion as to the proper understanding of the uniqueness of Christ, it is necessary to recall some essential elements of Church teaching. The crux of the issue is that Being Religious Interreligiously does not express adequately and accurately the Church's teaching."

In addition to a deficient presentation of the salvific role of Jesus Christ, the committee expresses their concern over Phan's view of the salvific role of non-Christian religions:

The book defends the view that "the non-Christian religions possess an autonomous function in the history of salvation, different from that of Christianity," and that "they cannot be reduced to Christianity in terms of preparation and fulfillment." The book asserts:
Religious pluralism . . . is not just a matter of fact but also a matter of principle. That is, non-Christian religions may be seen as part of the plan of divine providence and endowed with a particular role in the history of salvation. They are not merely a "preparation" for, "stepping stones" toward, or "seeds" of Christianity and destined to be "fulfilled" by it Rather, they have their own autonomy and their proper roles as ways of salvation, at least for their adherents.
The book contrasts what it sees as the Second Vatican Council's deliberate decision to refrain "from affirming that these religions as such function as ways of salvation in a manner analogous, let alone parallel, to Christianity," with the position of certain contemporary theologians, among whom the author includes himself. These theologians believe that it is necessary to go beyond the Council's position and to assert “that these religions may be said to be ways of salvation and that religious pluralism is part of God’s providential plan.”
The committee's response to this tripe bears quoting at length:
Since the book as a whole is based on the idea that religious pluralism is indeed a positively-willed part of the divine plan, the reader is led to conclude that there is some kind of moral obligation for the Church to refrain from calling people to conversion to Christ and to membership in his Church. According to the book, religious pluralism "may not and must not be abolished" by conversion to Christianity. The implication is that to continue the Christian mission to members of non-Christian religions would be contrary to God's purpose in history. Such a conclusion, instead of being a "theologically more adequate equivalent" of Church teaching, is in fact an alteration that blurs Church teaching. At this point the autonomy of non- Christian religions has eclipsed their relatedness to Jesus Christ.

21. This call for an end to Christian mission is in conflict with the Church’s commission, given to her by Christ himself:"Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you." Moreover, if one accepts that Jesus Christ is in fact the one affirmed by Christian faith as the eternal Son of God made man, through whom the universe was created and by whose death and resurrection the human race has the possibility of attaining eternal life, then it is incoherent to argue that it would somehow be better if certain people were not told this truth.

22. The Church's evangelizing mission is not an imposition of power but an expression of love for the whole world. The very fact that other religions do not possess the fullness of the Father’s truth revealed in Jesus Christ and the fullness of the Father’s love that is poured out in the Holy Spirit ought to compel Christians, in their love for all men and women, to share their faith with others. To offer others the gift of Jesus Christ is to offer them the greatest and most valuable of all gifts, for he is the Father’s merciful gift to all. Thus there is no necessary conflict between showing respect for other religions and fulfilling Christ's command to proclaim the Gospel to all the nations.

The USCCB's Doctrine Committee consists of
  • Most Rev. William E. Lori (Chairman), Bishop of Bridgeport;
  • Most Rev. Leonard P. Blair, Bishop of Toledo
  • Most Rev. José H. Gomez, Archbishop of San Antonio
  • Most Rev. Robert J. McManus, Bishop of Worcester
  • Most Rev. Arthur J. Serratelli, Bishop of Paterson
  • Most Rev. Allen H. Vigneron, Bishop of Oakland
  • Most Rev. Donald W. Wuerl, Archbishop of Washington

John Allen Jr. provides the background to the Bishop's investigation of Fr. Phan, which came as as pecific consequence of Phan's neglect to honor requests from the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith to provide clarification of his positions:

A Vatican investigation of Phan’s work was opened in 2004, under protocol number 537/2004-21114. On July 20, 2005, Archbishop Angelo Amato, the number two official of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, wrote to Bishop Charles Grahmann of Dallas, informing him that the congregation has found “serious ambiguities and doctrinal problems” in Being Religious Interreligiously. Phan, a former Salesian, is now a priest of the Dallas diocese; Grahmann has since retired, and has been replaced by Bishop Kevin Farrell.

Phan replied on April 4 to Cardinal William Levada, the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. He did not enter into the merits of the observations, though he said several were “preposterous.” To date, the CDF has not responded.

In the meantime, however, the U.S. bishops began their own inquiry. On May 15, 2007, Bishop William Lori of Bridgeport, Connecticut wrote to Phan as chair of the Committee on Doctrine for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. Lori wrote that because the requests of the CDF had “proven unacceptable to you,” his committee had been asked by the CDF to examine the book. Lori asked Phan to respond to a four-page set of observations enclosed with his letter.

Phan protested that in view of his academic commitments he did not have enough time to respond prior to the spring of 2008. Given that, the Doctrine Committee decided to proceed with publication of its statement. [...]

A USCCB spokesperson said on Monday that the Doctrine Committee does not know if the Vatican now considers the Phan case closed, or if the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith might take it up again on its own.

Peter C. Phan, the first Asian-American to serve as President of the Catholic Theological Society of America, holds the Ellacuria Chair of Catholic Social Thought at Georgetown University.

* * *

On a related note, on December 14th, 2007 the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith released "Doctrinal Note on Some Aspects of Evangelization", "devoted principally to an exposition of the Catholic Church's understanding of the Christian mission of evangelization, which is to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ" and reasserting the Church's 'Missionary Mandate'. Zenit News provides a summary; the complete text is available here [.pdf format, thanks to Rorate Caeli].


Thursday, November 29, 2007

Further Responses to "A Common Word"

[This post is a continuation of a discussion of the recent "open letter to the Pope" [and Christian community at large] by 138 Muslim scholars and reactions -- prior posts in this series: "A Common Word" and Christian-Muslim Dialogue 10/27/07; Fr. Christian Troll: Response to "A Common Word" 10/28/07]

Magister: Pope and Muslims "at a great distance"

Sandro Magister turns his attention to the "open letter to the Pope" (and all Christians) -- entitled "A Common Word Between Us and You" -- from Muslim scholars, and speculates: Why Benedict XVI Is So Cautious with the Letter of the 138 Muslims (www.Chiesa November 26, 2007):

Benedict XVI and the directors of the Holy See appear more cautious and reserved toward this flurry of dialogue.

The Holy See immediately replied to the letter of the 138 Muslims with polite statements of appreciation. But it put off until later a more fully elaborated response.

The only comment on the letter of the 138 so far released by an institution connected to the Holy See – The Pontifical Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies – has also been kept in the shadows, in spite of the fact that it emphasizes the new and positive elements of the Muslim initiative.

Not even L'Osservatore Romano mentioned it. The only reference made so far to the letter of the 138 in the newspaper of the Holy See was within a note announcing and commenting on the November 6 meeting between King Abdallah of Saudi Arabia and Benedict XVI. "L'Osservatore" did not even give coverage to the commentaries on the letter of the 138 by two scholars of Islam highly respected by pope Joseph Ratzinger, the Jesuits Samir Khalil Samir, from Egypt, and Christian W. Troll, from Germany.

But it is precisely from reading these commentaries – and that of Troll in particular – that one understands the reason for the caution of the Church of Rome.

Troll notes that the letter of the 138 Muslims, with its insistence on the commandments of the love of God and neighbor as the "common word" of both the Qur'an and the Bible, seems intended to bring dialogue onto the sole terrain of doctrine and theology.

But – Troll objects – there is a gaping distinction between the one God of the Muslims and the Trinitarian God of the Christians, with the Son who becomes man. This cannot be minimized, much less negotiated. The true "common word" must be sought elsewhere: in "putting into effect these commandments in the concrete, here-and-now reality of plural societies." It must be sought in the defense of human rights, of religious freedom, of equality between man and woman, of the distinction between religious and political powers. The letter of the 138 is elusive or silent on all of this.

Magister goes on to examine the kind of dialogue that Pope Benedict XVI wants -- as conveyed in a passage of his Christmas address to the Roman curia, on December 22, 2006:
"In a dialogue to be intensified with Islam, we must bear in mind the fact that the Muslim world today is finding itself faced with an urgent task. This task is very similar to the one that has been imposed upon Christians since the Enlightenment, and to which the Second Vatican Council, as the fruit of long and difficult research, found real solutions for the Catholic Church.

"It is a question of the attitude that the community of the faithful must adopt in the face of the convictions and demands that were strengthened in the Enlightenment.

"On the one hand, one must counter a dictatorship of positivist reason that excludes God from the life of the community and from public organizations, thereby depriving man of his specific criteria of judgment.

"On the other, one must welcome the true conquests of the Enlightenment, human rights and especially the freedom of faith and its practice, and recognize these also as being essential elements for the authenticity of religion.

"As in the Christian community, where there has been a long search to find the correct position of faith in relation to such beliefs - a search that will certainly never be concluded once and for all -, so also the Islamic world with its own tradition faces the immense task of finding the appropriate solutions in this regard.

"The content of the dialogue between Christians and Muslims will be at this time especially one of meeting each other in this commitment to find the right solutions. We Christians feel in solidarity with all those who, precisely on the basis of their religious conviction as Muslims, work to oppose violence and for the synergy between faith and reason, between religion and freedom."

Says Magister: "The letter of the 138 contains no trace of this proposal that Benedict XVI issued to the Muslim world in December one year ago. This is a sign that there is truly a great distance between the visions of these two."

* * *

That said, anticipates a Vatican response in the near future:

"The Vatican will respond positively, and quite soon," Dakar Cardinal Theodore-Adrien Sarr told Reuters on Sunday, November 25, during a ceremony to install 23 new members of the College of Cardinals.

"We will not miss this opportunity." . . .

Sarr said the Vatican planned to invite a small group of the letter signatories for exploratory talks on the way forward.

"There will be a meeting with them to clarify what they want to do.

"After that, we'll see what we can do."

Catholic cardinals and experts on Islam see the Muslim initiative as a milestone.

"This is an opportunity the Lord has given us and put into the hearts of people to work together," said Mumbai Cardinal Oswald Gracias.

"All of us (cardinals) are very happy."

Paris Cardinal Andre Vingt-Trois said a serious and broad Christian-Muslim dialogue would help inter-faith relations in France, which has Europe's largest Muslim minority.

"This is a significant step.

"I remember that only a few years ago, we regretted there weren't any Muslim leaders who could take a public stand, for example against terrorism."

Catholic experts on Islam said the Vatican had reservations about complex theological issues such as whether Christians and Muslims had the same vision of God.

They said there was so much misunderstanding between Christians and Muslims about what each other believed that a serious dialogue about them would help improve relations.

"There are differences and they will always be there," one said.

"But now is not the time to look for problems. It is important to respond to something so positive with something equally positive."

Nayed vs. Tauran: No Dialogue Possible?

Numerous sources have cited Cardinal Tauran's rather blunt dismissal of the possibility of theological dialogue with Muslims, because "Muslims do not accept the possibility of discussing the Quran, because it is written, they say, as dictated by God" and "with such a strict interpretation, it is difficult to discuss the content of faith." Arif Ali Nayed, one of the original signers of "A Common Word", responded in an interview with Cindy Wooden of the Catholic News Service (Islamica Magazine, No. 20):

Cardinal Tauran’s statement to Le Croix was very disappointing indeed. It came at a time of high expectation of responsiveness, and on the eve of the important Naples Sant’Egidio encounter. Many people were expecting Pope Benedict XVI to say something positive about the Muslim scholars’ initiative. Alas, a truly historic opportunity for a loving embrace was simply missed.

Instead, the Cardinal’s statement deeply discouraged Muslim scholars, and annoyed many Muslim believers at the grassroots level. Many such believers blamed their leaders for still approaching the Vatican, given the Cardinal’s attitude and the Vatican’s non-responsiveness to Muslim scholars last year. The Cardinal’s statement was quickly propagated through the press, and almost derailed the whole initiative. Muslim scholars already expressed their views on the Cardinal’s statement in their Communiqué to the Naples encounter. However, the content of the Cardinal’s statement does need to be addressed theologically and hermeneutically.

Nayed goes on to specifically rebut Tauran's charges, noting the double irony in that it "accuses Muslims of an imaginary theological/hermeneutical closure that is more appropriately attributable to the Vatican’s own pre-1943 closure to historical-critical methodologies" and "holds that upholding the divine authorship of a sacred text is a hindrance to theological dialogue."
If such belief in divine authorship prevents its adherents from theological dialogue, then the Cardinal would have the same dialogical inhibitions that he imagines Muslim scholars to have. . . .

Rather than unilaterally declaring the impossibility of theological dialogue with Muslims, Cardinal Tauran would have been wiser to ask Muslim scholars themselves as to what kind of dialogue they feel is possible, from their point of view. To unilaterally pre-determine what is possible and not possible for the other, on behalf of the other, is one sure way of achieving closure in matters dialogical.

See also: Scholars troubled by Vatican official's remarks on Muslim dialogue Catholic News Service. October 31, 2007:
Jesuit Fr Daniel A. Madigan, who serves as a consultant to the commission for relations with Muslims at the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue said many Christians misunderstand how Muslims view the Quran, leading to a widespread prejudice that assumes Muslims are unwilling or incapable of interpreting the Quran.

"Any act of reading is an act of interpretation: Some Muslims read the Quran as warranting violence, while others do not interpret it that way. Some think it requires the seclusion of women, many others disagree.

"At a time when a substantial group of Muslim scholars of widely varying persuasions is trying publicly to promote a theological dialogue with Christians, it seems imprudent to rule out the very possibility of such an engagement," he said.

Further Catholic Responses

Muslims have been waiting a response "from the top" to the letter, but that is not to say Catholics haven't responded -- individually (Fr. Samir Khalil, Fr. Troll, Cardinal Scola) and collectively (USCCB).

Cardinal Pell of Australia also mentioned the letter recently, in an address entitled Prospects for peace and rumours of war: Religion and democracy in the years ahead October 29, 2007 (LifeSite News), who praised the letter as a "helpful initiative":

This letter is one of the most authoritative statements we have seen from Muslim leaders supporting dialogue and friendship between Christians and Muslims, based on a shared belief in God as the God of love, and in the commandment to love our neighbour as we love ourselves. [...]

Outsiders and insiders have every right to ask spokespersons of the great religious traditions, perhaps the monotheist traditions in particular, how they understand and explain the teachings of their sacred writings on violence and coexistence, and how they explain, condone, or condemn what are, or appear to be, religious wars. This letter is an important contribution to this discussion.

Of particular interest to me is the idea of human nature which the Muslim scholars present in their letter, and the interpretation of the Koran they use for this. The letter argues that the “the three main faculties” of human nature are “the mind or the intelligence, which is made for comprehending the truth; the will which is made for freedom of choice, and sentiment which is made for loving the good and the beautiful”. Christianity teaches that human beings are a unity of reason, freedom and love, and while the emphasis on “intelligence”, “will” and “sentiment” in the Muslim scholars letter should not automatically be assumed to be the simple equivalent of this teaching, it certainly opens up new and positive questions to explore. It also raises the intriguing possibility of Christians, Muslims and Jews co-operating to help secular society address its radically diminished ideas of the human person, and the fragmented and incoherent ideas it has about the meaning and value of reason, freedom and love.

George Weigel, on the other hand, is less than hopeful about the prospects of dialogue -- also taking note of the omission of the Pope's December address to the Roman Curia) ("A Disappointing Call for Dialogue" The Catholic Difference. November 7, 2007):
For unless Islam can find within its own spiritual resources a way to legitimate religious freedom and the distinction between religious and political authority, the relationship between two billion Christians and a billion Muslims is going to remain fraught with tension. "A Common Word" speaks at length about the two Great Commandments; it says nothing about their applicability to issues of faith, freedom, and the governance of society: issues posed, for example, by the death threats visited upon Muslims who convert to Christianity and by the refusal to allow Christian public worship in Saudi Arabia. "A Common Word" also seems rather defensive, as if it were 21st century Christians who, in considerable numbers, were justifying the murder of innocents in advancing the cause of God. But that is manifestly not the case. . . .

Do these 138 Muslims agree or disagree that religious freedom and the distinction between religious and political authority are the issues at the heart of today's tensions between Islam and the West -- indeed, Islam and the rest? Would it not be more useful to concentrate on these urgent issues of practical reason (which bear on the organization of 21st century societies) than to frame the dialogue in terms of a generic exploration of the two Great Commandments (which risks leading to an exchange of banalities)? Why not get down to cases?

In the latest issue of Oasis, Paolo Branca, Senior Researcher and Assistant Professor in Arabic and Islamic Studies at the Catholic University of Milan, hails the document as "A Word to be Read and Spread in the Muslim World":

As we are aware, the Islamic authorities are often influenced by the regimes of the countries where they live, but on this occasion it would seem that the need not to interrupt communication at a religious level has prevailed in respect of any potential reticence or orientations, more or less imposed. Indeed, the document does not linger on the polemic points which have predominated in the preceding intervention but seeks to return to the essence of the two respective traditions in order to identify common elements. . . .

The only weak point would appear to be the fact that one is evidently dealing with a document which has been thought out and written with the addressees in mind, but it is also our duty to give it the necessary importance so that even in the Islamic world it is recognised and valued, especially where discriminated minorities are present and various forms of tension if not conflicts which still involve ethnic-religious aspects.

To limit oneself to say that one could have done more or even worse, completely snub these words pretending to be the only authentic holders of criticism and self-criticism would mean losing out on an opportunity which awareness and a sense of responsibility would instead induce to value for the common interest.

In "The Christians of Arabia Wonder about the Open Letter", Bishop Paul Hinder, OFM Cap, believes that the letter "should not be left without a positive answer from the Christian side, although there are many open questions":
Every effort to draw closer to a common understanding is welcome, even though it might be a very tiny beginning. Of course, there has to be further clarification about whether "the love of God" and the "love of neighbour" have the same meaning in both religions. Another crucial point might be that Christians cannot simply see Jesus Christ as one among other prophets, but profess him in his divinity as the living Son of God within the belief in One God in three Persons. However, the open letter can be a first important step in discovering a common ground that will later allow also a common word. Will this word also be a clear one, and not only a common one?
Howbeit expressing his concern about the omission of the Jews from the document:
The lack is the more regrettable as the central importance of the Jews today is crucial because of the political situation in the Middle East, a question requiring an answer which may be found at least partially in the application of the two main commandments by all who are involved. A common word should therefore include also the Jews.
[According to the FAQ accompanying the letter: "Jewish scriptures are invoked repeatedly and respectfully in the document by way of preparing the ground for a further document specifically addressed to Jewish scholars" and "the problems between Jews and Muslims are essentially political not theological" -- I'm curious to see how this plays out].

Discussions on Catholic Blogs

Returning to the blogosphere, DarwinCatholic and Wheat & Reeds have responded thoughtfully to my posts on this subject. I'll try to respond in kind.

First, in Peace Through Strength In The Muslim World, Wheat and Weeds wonders: "To what extent do we owe this letter --which I take as meaningful and a sign of progress-- precisely to the Iraq war, since Muslims don't make the distinction we do between faith and politics?" -- recalling an earlier column by John Allen, Jr. on Christian-Muslim relations in Nigeria. According to the general secretary of the Christian Association of Nigeria, it was only when Christians responded with firm resolve and defended themselves against Muslim-initiated violence that they saw the need to come to the table: "They saw our people have resolve, and that's when the decision was made to form a consultative forum of religious leaders." Along the same lines:

. . . while the letter is ostensibly a response to Benedict XVI's Regensberg lecture, and I take nothing away from the Pope --I think his "hard line" (really just a hard question) provoked this response, I wonder if we don't have to see Benedict & Bush as a tag team in favor of Muslim moderation, as Reagan and JP the Great overcame Soviet Communism.

I am certainly appreciative of the firm resolve of the Bush Administration in waging a war against Al Qaeda and Islamic terrorism, which in Iraq finally seems to be bearing some fruit along these lines. (Writing for The Long War Journal Nov. 17, 2007 -- Bill Roggio reported that prominent Sunni clerics, who once supported, justified, or remained silent about al Qaeda's terror tactics, have now turned on the leading Sunni religious establishment that supports al Qaeda in Iraq).

On the other hand, this is not to say that a good number of Muslims on their own initiative have been moved to reflect on the religious perversions that culminated in the horror of 9/11 and subsequent atrocities across the globe, or have repudiated unjust bloodshed in Allah's name.

See for example Khaled M. Abou El Fadl's The Great Theft: Wrestling Islam from the Extremists; Islam, Fundamentalism, and the Betrayal of Tradition: Essays by Traditional Muslim Writers and The State We Are In: Identity, Terror, and the Law of Jihad - an anthology of responses to the London bus and subway bombings in 2005, including Shaykh Mohammad Afifi al-Akiti's "Defending the Transgressed by Censuring the Reckless against the Killing of Civilians" -- a fatwa given in direct response to UK-based jihadi group. Contrary to popular perception, many of those offended are not "moderates" but rather can be described as "traditional" Muslims, who frame the debate rather differently. Aftab Ahmad Malik elaborates:

Today, to reform is seen as a major way to purge extremism, but it is precisely through reform that extremist groups such as Al Qaeda are able to construct their jihadist worldview and claim legitimacy. In addition, the extremists and the reformers share some commonalities. Both want the right to reinterpret Islam as they see fit which can only be achieved by dismissing Islamic tradition. By doing so, both vest every Muslim with the competence to be a jurist. At the heart of both the extremist and reformist understanding of Islam is the individual and the self: there is no need to study the traditional Islamic sciences nor is there any need for recourse to the learned scholars as these give way to an "expression of a personal relationship [...] to faith and knowledge." It should come as no suprise, then, to learn that "few Al Qaeda operatives [...] have a religious education," [with] most having been trained within secular institutions and in technical fields, and it is extremely telling that Osama bin Laden referred to the 9/11 hijackers as belonging to no traditional school of Islamic law.
(The State We Are In p. 26)

It was toward this end that The Amman Message was conceived. Convened by an international Islamic summit to establish a consensus as to "what Islam does and does not allow, who is a Muslim and who can speak for Islam":

First, the declaration recognized the legitimacy and common principles of all eight of the traditional schools of Islamic religious law (madhhabs) from the Sunni, Shi’i and Ibadi branches of Islam, and of Su, Ash’ari and moderate Sala Islamic thought. Second, it defined the necessary qualifications and conditions for issuing legitimate fatwas. This, in and of itself, defines the limits and borders of Islam and Islamic behavior. Amongst other things, it exposes the illegitimacy of the so-called ‘fatwas’ extremists use to justify terrorism, as these invariably contravene traditional Islamic sacred law (Shari’ah) and betray Islam’s core principles. Third, the declaration condemned the practice known as takfir (calling others “apostates”), a practice that is used by extremists to justify violence against those who do not agree with them.

H.M. King Abdullah II is building upon these historical developments with political, religious, educational and media initiatives to establish and implement the principles they represent at all levels of culture, education, religion.

What is the potential of such a consensus? -- According to the website:
This amounts to a historical, universal and unanimous religious and political consensus (ijma') of the Ummah (nation) of Islam in our day, and a consolidation of traditional, orthodox Islam. The significance of this is: (1) that it is the first time in over a thousand years that the Ummah has formally and specifically come to such a pluralistic mutual inter-recognition; and (2) that such a recognition is religiously legally binding on Muslims since the Prophet (may peace and blessings be upon him) said: My Ummah will not agree upon an error (Ibn Majah, Sunan, Kitab al-Fitan, Hadith no.4085).

This is good news not only for Muslims, for whom it provides a basis for unity and a solution to infighting, but also for non-Muslims. For the safeguarding of the legal methodologies of Islam (the Mathahib) necessarily means inherently preserving traditional Islam's internal 'checks and balances'. It thus assures balanced Islamic solutions for essential issues like human rights; women's rights; freedom of religion; legitimate jihad; good citizenship of Muslims in non-Muslim countries, and just and democratic government. It also exposes the illegitimate opinions of radical fundamentalists and terrorists from the point of view of true Islam.

Something that may (we hope) bear some good fruit over time.

* * *

In A Common Word: Islam and the Limits of Dialogue, DarwinCatholic expresses his reservations about the kind of "dialogue" anticipated by the signatories to "A Common Word":

While I respect the sincerity of the signatories of A Common Word, and agree that the three great monotheistic religions do share in common principles of love of God and love of neighbor, I'm not clear how much of the deeper dialogue which they wish the Vatican were more open to is actually possible. For once we have discussed the love of God and love of neighbor, where exactly could we go from there? The one-ness of God, it would seem, and yet here we immediately run into one of the great historic differences between our faiths. Islam does not admit as possible that God should be three in one. And while explaining the Trinity in such terms as to be understandable to a Muslim audience would be a worthy occupation, if a consensus on this were achieved my understanding is that this would consist (for the Muslims) of rejecting traditional Islam. You cannot, so far as I can understand, both accept the trinity and be a good Muslim.

Which brings us to the central problem of religious dialogue: What exactly is the goal? [...]

Perhaps open-minded Muslims are ready to grant that Christianity is mostly true so far as it goes (though can we maybe gloss over a few major dogmas like the Trinity, the Eucharist, etc.?) and in that sense are open for deeper theological dialogue. But from a Christian point of view the entire revelation of Mohammad is a human invention/delusion at best, and at worse something rather more sinister.

At that point, no wonder the Vatican seems more eager to pursue things on a diplomatic than a theological footing. At the level of achieving greater peace between Christians and Muslims, there's much to be achieved. At the level of theological dialogue...

Well, I think there are probably good things to be achieved there, but they would need to be achieved through a very non-goal-oriented approach. That, I think, has been the problem with many recent attempts at inter-religious dialogue. Too often these things seem focused on "let us agree on something we can sign together" rather than "let us attempt to find a way in which our beliefs can be presented to each other through a theological/philosophical language that both of us can understand".

We certainly cannot bridge the gap between the Muslim conception of Allah and Christianity's own Trinitarian convictions with fine words and diplomatic niceties. To concur with Fr. Troll, Christianity's Trinitarian convictions are
". . . not an aspect of Christianity that can be negotiated away. In this regard there are some slight ambiguities in the Open Letter, moments at which a Christian might feel that it is suggesting that there are no fundamental differences between the theologies of the two faiths, or at least that these differences do not really matter. While the warm, inviting tone of the Open Letter’s appeal to Christians is enormously encouraging, it is to be hoped that this can be held together with an approach which takes utterly seriously the points at which Christians and Muslims differ and does not encourage a diplomatic evasion of these points for the sake of a dialogue which would suffer as a result.
However, I am not wholly convinced that the intent of the signatories is a veiled call for conversion. As mentioned in my first post, the document ends with an Islamic theological affirmation of religious pluralism:
For each We have appointed a law and a way. Had God willed He could have made you one community. But that He may try you by that which He hath given you (He hath made you as ye are). So vie one with another in good works. Unto God ye will all return, and He will then inform you of that wherein ye differ. (Al- Ma’idah, 5:48)
While I would not begrudge Muslims their desire to convert us (after all, don't we Christians have the 'Great Commission'?), the letter's conclusion (setting the stage for future discussions) present a challenge to those for whom the very existence of non-Muslims is considered intolerable. In this, "A Common Word" presents itself as a challenge to Muslims as well. To quote Dr. Nayed in his introduction to the letter:
I whole-heartly believe that the true promise of this vital document, “A Common Word”, is that it is a first, but monumental step, toward retrieving and reliving the true Muslim way that was vividly described, long ago, by a spiritual master named Sidi Ahmed al-Rifa’i:

Master Ibrahim al-Azab (may God be pleased with him) said: “I said to master Ahmed (al-Rifa’i): “My master, the seekers discussed the way to God, and had many opinions." He replied: “My son, the ways to God are as many as the breaths of creatures! Oh Ibrahim, your grandfather (referring to himself) left no way without exploring (except those ways that God did not will for him). Oh Ibrahim, I explored all ways, and found no way closer, more-giving, more-hopeful, and more-lovely than the way of meekness (ajz), brokenness (inkisar), bewilderment (hayra), and poverty (iftiqar) (before God).” [1]

The document reopens precisely this way to God, the way of utter devotion to the One God, and utter love for His creatures. . . .

Such a simple, but profound way consists of:

1. Continuously remembering God and His compassion towards us.
2. Living in gratitude for God's compassion, through total devotion to Him.
3. Living as intensely as possible in mutual compassion (tarahum) with our neighbors.

The sooner we Muslims rehabilitate and mend our classical networks and institutions, and reconnect them with the rest of humanity in sincere and humble dialogue, the more able we will be to serve God and humanity.

Both Magister and Weigel reference in their writings the Pope's address to the Roman Curia as a basis for Christian-Muslim dialogue. Perhaps we should also take our cues from the Pope's address in November 2006 in meeting with Turkey's Religious Affairs Director, Ali Bardakoglu:
Christians and Muslims belong to the family of those who believe in the one God and who, according to their respective traditions, trace their ancestry to Abraham [cf. Second Vatican Council, Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions Nostra Aetate, 1,3]. This human and spiritual unity in our origins and our destiny impels us to seek a common path as we play our part in the quest for fundamental values so characteristic of the people of our time. As men and women of religion, we are challenged by the widespread longing for justice, development, solidarity, freedom, security, peace, defence of life, protection of the environment and of the resources of the earth. This is because we too, while respecting the legitimate autonomy of temporal affairs, have a specific contribution to offer in the search for proper solutions to these pressing questions.

Above all,we can offer a credible respons to the question which emerges clearly from today's society, even if it is often brushed aside, the question about the meaning and purpose of life, for each individual and for humanity as a whole. We are called to work together, so as to help society to open itself to the transcendent, giving Almighty God his rightful place. The best way forward is via authentic dialogue between Christians and Muslims, based on truth and inspired by a sincere wish to know one another better, respecting differences and recognizing what we have in common.

As an illustration of the fraternal respect with which Christians and Muslims can work together, I would like to quote some words addressed by Pope Gregory VII in 1076 to a Muslim prince in North Africa who had acted with great benevolence towards the Christians under his jurisdiction. Pope Gregory spoke of the particular charity that Christians and Muslims owe to one another "because we believe in one God, albeit in a different manner, and because we praise him and worship him every day as the Creator and Ruler of the world."

Freedom of religion, institutionally guaranteed and effectively respected in practice, both for individuals and communities, constitutes for all believers the necessary condition for their loyal contribution to the building up of society, in an attitude of authentic service, especially towards the most vulnerable and the very poor.

Here, Benedict's message encompasses both the essential goal of "A Common Word" (addressing "the meaning and purpose of life, for each individual and for humanity as a whole" and identifying that which Christians and Muslims have in common -- love of God and neighbor, AND the framework in which that love is to be manifested: "freedom of religion, institutionally guaranteed and respected in practice."

Q: Is the dialogue anticipated by Nayed really "entirely different" from that envisioned by the Pope?

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